O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
— John Keats
“What’s the minimum we need to do to be in compliance with the law?” the client asked. Their groundwater contamination was only on-site and no one was using the water. I gave him a brief rundown, then he surprised me, “What do we need to do to make it right?”
As an environmental consultant starting in the early ’70’s, I worked with lots of clients to define and often mitigate their pollution problems. Some were in it for the minimum cost, others wanted to do it “right”. The environmental laws and regulations created in the ’60’s and ’70’s helped to balance out the business impacts of doing the right thing — companies willing to do it “right” weren’t penalized compared to their competitors who wanted to skimp and save money. It’s important to reward and not penalize those that play by the rules.
I came of age in the sixties, and part of a family that valued nature. The environmental awareness that gripped society figured largely in my development. My father loved taking us kids out hunting or fishing and generally experiencing the great outdoors. We visited zoos and read about nature and all kinds of wild adventures. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson had a big effect on all of us, and probably influenced my interest in becoming an “environmental” engineer.
Concurrently, the Vietnam War stirred a populace to political activity just as the birth control pill changed society. Silent Spring (1962) became a major impetus for the environmental movement, but other thinkers played a role. Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire (1968) and The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) gave us vicarious insight into on-the-ground environmental issues. Conflicts around the damming of the Colorado River by the Glen Canyon Dam heightened this awareness and the Interstate Highway Program’s destruction of natural habitats and human communities added fuel to our environmental zeal.
Since then we’ve grown complacent about the environment. We’re dealing with finer details and, frankly, a less aware or educated populace. We are more easily bamboozled by the fake news crowd and climate change deniers into forgetting that science deals with facts. The hucksters and scam artists dazzle us with their smoke and mirrors, but the issues don’t just disappear. We earned our environmental awareness by living through what the lack of laws and regulations caused.
In 1969 the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland caught fire — and the public’s imagination — bringing major focus to the state of America’s rivers. Media reports showing the river burning (some used photos taken of a larger 1952 fire in the river) drew large audiences. By 1972, the Clean Water Act set goals for water quality and for implementing regulations to achieve them.
The same year, there was a major oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of California. It was the largest oil spill in US waters at the time, although smaller than the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez spills. Public outrage and media coverage fanned the flames of resistance, and added to the momentum for several new environmental statutes, including the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970, and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency the same year. In 1973, the Endangered Species Act was passed.
Air quality problems were visible in Los Angeles’ (and other cities’) smog, in industrial smokestacks and the haze in National Parks, leading in 1970 to the Clean Air Act.
Landfill problems including surface water and groundwater contamination and trash fires were frequently in the news. Videos on the national news in 1978 of exploding drums of chemical waste flying through the air from the Wade Dump fire on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania highlighted our problems with solid and hazardous wastes. More serious regulation of these had already begun with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976.
More land disposal disasters at Valley of the Drums in Kentucky and Love Canal in New York spurred passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act (Superfund) in 1980. Decades of dumping and spills and other actions left pollution at orphan or abandoned sites across the country, so the federal government stepped in to deal with the problem.
It has taken us a while as a nation to figure out how to deal with these kinds of issues. Too often it was billed as business (jobs) versus environment. Over the last four decades or so, we’ve gradually worked out what we can get by with and how we can do it “right”. But we need the regulatory pressure towards compliance to provide a level playing field. People or businesses that create problems by scrimping shouldn’t be rewarded in comparison to those doing the “right” things. We know some kind of enforcement is necessary because human nature can make us sloppy.
See those speed limit signs? We all know we should comply, but often when we do, it’s because we fear we might be ticketed. So, too, our environmental laws are there for the right reasons. They help us do the right thing.
I for one have no interest in returning to the old days and old ways suggested by our new president and certain members of Congress. It’s taken a while to find the right balance, and I’d hate to see all that progress lost — it’s not good for our health or our environment.
Environmental protection isn’t voluntary; it oughta be the law!